British artist James Blake has been a linchpin in contemporary popular music. Alongside his production work, imbuing a cosmic spiritual warmth to artists such as Travis Scott and Beyoncé, his acclaimed solo output has traversed an arc from solitary electronics topped with his forlorn vocals to a happier-sounding (and occasionally insipid) palette that leans more into traditional songwriting forms.
His sixth studio album is billed as Blake’s return to his club-facing roots, though it’s more serene than that would suggest. Playing Robots Into Heaven meanders occasionally, with tracks such as Loading falling flat. Still, intricate and surprising textures weave through the record: scratchy percussion; ghostly, sped-up vocals; a children’s choir; lush distortion; liquid synths; liturgical piano. Tell Me, with its siren-like trills, could be the more sedate cousin of Darude’s Sandstorm. Ruminating on connection and grief, the record pays homage to the music Blake loves while bringing it into his own atmospheric universe: the jungle vocals sampled on Big Hammer; I Want You To Know, a slightly corny cover of Snoop and Pharrell’s Beautiful; a literal, tender dedication to his singer-songwriter father, James Litherland, on If You Can Hear Me. While not quite a return to form, the album’s sleek yet plaintive production is a welcome reminder of what Blake does best.